Gimmick-happy networks launch the most competitive sweeps yet

Poor Donna. After seven years as TV’s most famous virgin, Tori Spelling’s character on Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210 finally decides to do the dirty deed. And what happens? She’s totally eclipsed by the sexual breakthrough of that other blond over on ABC.

And Donna’s fate only gets worse. Her historic May 21 roll in the hay takes place during an end-of-season sweeps month (which began April 24) packed with megabudgets and promotions the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Consider the competition: a record-breaking seven miniseries, eight theatrical debuts (including that gorilla Forrest Gump), a couple extra dimensions, celebrity guest stars out the ying-yang, and, of course, one massively hyped lesbian. ”It’s extraordinary,” says Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth, who promises a sensitively handled sexcapade for Donna. ”It’s going to be the most competitive sweeps, I think, ever!”

Extraordinary — and also somewhat desperate. The networks have hemorrhaged about 11 percent of their viewers to cable over the past three seasons, ratcheting up the pressure in general and on May sweeps in particular. For these are the season’s four most critical weeks, determining billions of dollars in ad rates over the next six months, including the all-important season kickoff next fall. (The lower-wattage November and February — and virtually ignored July sweeps, in contrast, affect only three months each.) ”No network feels secure in its ratings position,” says ad buyer Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media. ”The stakes are high.”

Aside from the usual collection of boffo season and series finales (see page 30), the nets have several plans of attack:

YOU GOTTA HAVE A GIMMICK. Back in ’91, NBC had a bright idea: Plotlines in one Saturday night of programming would revolve around a hurricane. When ratings zoomed, the gimmick stampede began. Most recently, during February sweeps, ABC scored above-average numbers with a Vegas-themed Wednesday night (Coach had its highest Nielsens for the season — even opposite the Grammys).

This month, in addition to ABC and NBC making their sitcom characters three-dimensional in at least one respect, Fox is offering a weeklong buildup to its airing of Jim Carrey’s The Mask (April 29). The tactic: bulging eyeballs, unfurling tongues, and other Mask-like visual wizardry on several of the network’s sitcoms. ”You won’t need any el cheapo 3-D glasses, either,” says one delightfully below-the-belt promo.

ABC execs abandoned a similar gimmick for Forrest Gump, airing May 4 (at one point they considered having their shows’ characters make references to the lovable simp). To promote its wares, the Alphabet opted instead for an unorthodox — and somewhat odd — monthlong homage to the rock band U2 called ”ABC is Pop.” The promo, which ties in to a U2 rockumentary (April 26), is supposed to mean ”ABC is pop culture, is popular, is pop music,” says ABC’s senior VP of promotions Jim Vescera.